Quantcast
Fracking

Oil and Gas Billionaire Pressured Oklahoma Scientist to Ignore Fracking-Earthquake Link

Hillary Clinton's emails aren't the only ones making news, at least not in Oklahoma. A trove of emails were released by the Oklahoma Geological Survey (OGS), which regulates the state's oil and gas industries, in response to public records requests from news outlets such as Bloomberg and EnergyWire. They appear to reveal that oil and gas billionaire Harold Hamm, known as the founding father of the U.S. fracking boom, inserted himself into the conversation about whether fracking was causing a dramatic upsurge in earthquakes in the state.

Billionaire Harold Hamm is known as the pioneer of fracking. Image credit: Bloomberg

Bloomberg reports that in November 2013, state seismologist Austin Holland, who works for the OGS, got a request from University of Oklahoma president David Boren to meet with him and Hamm in Boren's office. Boren is on the board of Hamm's company, Continental Resources.

Hamm isn't known as a guy shy about slinging around his money and his influence. He's given millions to the University of Oklahoma including $20 million for a diabetes center. He contributed almost a million dollars to Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign and was named his energy advisor. And according to Holland, at that meeting with Boren, he wanted to express his "concern" about the growing evidence that the wave of earthquakes was an outcome of the fracking process.

As fracking has exploded in Oklahoma in the last five years, so have earthquakes, going from an average of two a year over 3.0 magnitude from 1975-2008 to 538 in 2014. Last year, Oklahoma surged past California as the most seismically active state in the lower 48. And scientific studies have been piling up showing a connection between earthquakes and fracking, not just in Oklahoma but also in Texas, Colorado and Ohio.

"Large areas of the U.S. that used to experience few or no earthquakes have, in recent years, experienced a remarkable increase in earthquake activity that has caused considerable public concern as well as damage to structures," says the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). "This rise in seismic activity, especially in the central U.S., is not the result of natural processes. Deep injection of wastewater is the primary cause of the dramatic rise in detected earthquakes and the corresponding increase in seismic hazard in the central U.S."

"Holland had been studying possible links between a rise in seismic activity in Oklahoma and the rapid increase in oil and gas production, the state’s largest industry," wrote Bloomberg reporters Benjamin Elgin and Matthew Phillips. "Hamm requested that Holland be careful when publicly discussing the possible connection between oil and gas operations and a big jump in the number of earthquakes, which geological researchers were increasingly tying to the underground disposal of oil and gas wastewater, a byproduct of the fracking boom that Continental has helped pioneer."

"It was just a little bit intimidating," said Holland. When he emailed a colleague that he had been summoned to have "coffee" with Boren and Hamm, she replied, "Gosh, I guess that's better than having Kool-Aid with them. I guess."

The previous month, Holland had a meeting in the office of Patrice Douglas, then one of the three elected members of the OGS, that was attended by Jack Stark, then senior vice president for exploration at Continental and now its president. Holland updated his superiors following the meeting, saying, “The basic jist [sic] of the meeting is that Continental does not feel induced seismicity is an issue and they are nervous about any dialogue about the subject."

It appears their nervousness was making Holland and the OGS nervous as well, and that they bowed to Hamm's suggestion that they "be careful" about linking earthquakes and fracking operations. When the journal Geology published a paper attributing a 2011 5.6 magnitude Oklahoma quake in 2011 to the injection of fracking wastewater, OGS put out its own statement attributing it to “natural causes.”

And when a new disposal well was turned on in southern Oklahoma's Love County and the area began to experience multiple quakes a day, which disappeared when the well was de-activated, Holland wrote, “We cannot rule out that this observation could be simply a coincidence." After Holland stonewalled residents at a public meeting, ExxonMobil geologist Michael Sweatt emailed him, saying, “I would like to congratulate you on a job well done at the Town Hall meeting in Love County. I believe you delivered an unbiased report on the recent earthquake activity and answered the residents’ questions the best you could.”

Both Boren and Continental dismissed concerns that there was anything improper in the November 2013 meeting in Boren's office or other contacts that Continental had with the OSG.

“The insinuation that there was something untoward that occurred in those meetings is both offensive and inaccurate,” Continental Resources spokeswoman Kristin Thomas told Bloomberg. “The Oklahoma Geological Survey had a solid reputation of an agency that was accessible and of service to the community and industry in Oklahoma. We hope that the agency can continue the legacy to provide this service.”

Boren called the meeting in his office "purely informational," and said, “Mr. Hamm is a very reputable producer and wanted to know if Mr. Holland had found any information which might be helpful to producers in adopting best practices that would help prevent any possible connection between drilling and seismic events. In addition, he wanted to make sure that the OGS had the benefit of research by Continental geologists.”

Holland has denied that pressure from the oil and gas executives influenced his thinking, telling EnergyWire "None of these conversations affect the science that we are working on producing."

And today for Holland, the evidence seems to have overwhelmed Hamm's push for discretion. While saying that Oklahoma has seen spikes in earthquakes in the past when no drilling was going on, he told Bloomberg that he believes most of the new seismic activity is due to the injection of oil and gas wastewater.

“We don’t work in a vacuum, although a lot of people think science does occur in an ivory tower or vacuum," Holland told the Tulsa World earlier this year. "So clearly we feel pressures on both sides, and really we are trying to serve Oklahomans and understand things as best we can.”

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

Founding Father of Fracking Boom Is Crying the Blues

Did Fracking Cause Oklahoma to Have 3 Times as Many Earthquakes as California in 2014?

Scientists Say Small Fracking Earthquakes Could Lead to Major Ones 

Show Comments ()

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Sponsored
Champurrado (Mexican hot chocolate) is a beloved holiday favorite. PETA

8 Festive Vegan Drinks to Keep You Cozy This Winter

By Zachary Toliver

Looking for warm vegan holiday drinks to help you deal with the short days and cold weather? This time of year, we could all use a steamy cup of cheer during the holiday chaos. Have a festive, cozy winter with these delicious options. (Note that you must be 21 to enjoy some of the recipes.)

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Pexels

For a Happier, Healthier World, Live Modestly

By Marlene Cimons

Gibran Vita makes every effort to get rid of the dispensable. He lives in a small home and wears extra layers indoors to cut his heating bills. He eats and drinks in moderation. He spends his leisure time in "contemplation," volunteering or working on art projects. "I like to think more like a gatherer, that is, 'what do I have?' instead of 'what do I want?'" he said.

Keep reading... Show less
Climate
An underwater marker in front of Cortada's studio helps predict how many feet of water needs to rise before the area becomes submerged. Xavier Cortada

As Miami Battles Sea-Level Rise, This Artist Makes Waves With His 'Underwater Homeowners Association'

By Patrick Rogers

Miami artist Xavier Cortada lives in a house that stands at six feet above sea level. The Episcopal church down the road is 11 feet above the waterline, and the home of his neighbor, a dentist, has an elevation of 13 feet. If what climate scientists predict about rising sea levels comes true, the Atlantic Ocean could rise two to three feet by the time Cortada pays off his 30-year mortgage. As the polar ice caps melt, the sea is inching ever closer to the land he hopes one day to pass on to the next generation, in the city he has called home since the age of three.

Keep reading... Show less
Food
GMVozd / E+ / Getty Images

How to Ferment Vegetables in Three Easy Steps

By Brian Barth

A mason jar packed with cultured or fermented vegetables at your local urban provisions shop will likely set you back $10 to $15. Given that the time and materials involved are no more than five minutes and $2, respectively, one imagines that the makers of cultured vegetables have spent eight years training with fermentation masters in some stone-age village, or that they've mortgaged their house to pay for high-end fermenting equipment to ensure that the dilly beans come out tasting properly pickled.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Popular
Orangutan in Sumatra. Tbachner / Wikimedia Commons

Norway to Ban Deforestation-Linked Palm Oil Biofuels in Historic Vote

The Norwegian parliament voted this week to make Norway the world's first country to bar its biofuel industry from importing deforestation-linked palm oil starting in 2020, The Independent reported.

Environmentalists celebrated the move as a victory for rainforests, the climate and endangered species such as orangutans that have lost their habitats due to palm oil production in Indonesia and Malaysia. It also sets a major precedent for other nations.

Keep reading... Show less
Oceans
Australia's Great Barrier Reef. Steve Parish/ Lock the Gate Alliance / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Scientists Discover 'Most Diverse Coral Site' on Great Barrier Reef

Australian scientists have found the "most diverse coral site" on the Great Barrier Reef, observing at least 195 different species of corals in space no longer than 500 meters, The Guardian reported.

The non-profit organization Great Barrier Reef Legacy and marine scientist Charlie Veron, a world expert on coral reefs, confirmed the diversity of the site, also known as the "Legacy Super Site" on the outer reef.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Renewable Energy
Buses head out at the Denver Public Schools Hilltop Terminal Nov. 10, 2017. Andy Cross / The Denver Post via Getty Images

Why Aren't School Buses Electric? These Coloradans Are Sick of Diesel

By Corey Binns

Before her two kids returned to school at the end of last summer, Lorena Osorio stood before the Westminster, Colorado, school board and gave heartfelt testimony about raising her asthmatic son, now a student at the local high school. "My son was only three years old when he first suffered from asthma," she said. Like most kids, he rode a diesel school bus. Some afternoons he arrived home struggling to breathe.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
jessicahyde / iStock / Getty Images

Hemp May Soon Be Federally Legal, But Many Will Be Barred From Growing It

By Dan Nosowitz

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has, perhaps unexpectedly to those who find themselves agreeing with only this one position of his, been a major force for legalizing industrial hemp. Industrial hemp differs from marijuana in that it's bred specifically to have extremely low concentrations of THC, the primary psychoactive chemical in marijuana; smoke industrial hemp all you want, it'll just give you sore lungs.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!